5 Leadership Virtues Turned Vices

February 13, 2017

“The devil is sneaky.” I say this when I see sin and evil insinuated into the good things of God, perverting and destroying them.

The devil creates nothing. And I mean that literally. There is nothing the devil creates for he only distorts and corrupts. But the devil does create nothing, taking something and making it into ‘nothing’.

I see this happen when it comes to leadership in the church. The good things of God, be they doctrines or practices, are corrupted and the church distorted.

So let’s talk about five theological virtues that can become practical vice in relation to leadership in the church. Of course I’m painting with a broad brush, so please push back in the comments about how you see things playing out in your particular contexts and traditions.

(The impetus for this post came out of a conversation with a J.R. Briggs at Young, Restless, and Always Reforming)

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5 Theological Virtues Turned Leadership Vices

1) The Sovereignty of God (Reformed)

The Reformed tradition places great emphasis on the sovereignty of God in all matters relating to creation and salvation. This is a theological virtue calling us to have faith in the God who is ruling in and through all things. God is God, and we are not (as the saying goes).

This theological virtue becomes a practical vice when church leadership assumes uncritically the mantle of God’s sovereignty (or the congregation places this mantel upon its leadership). This vice can tend toward authoritarianism in matters of doctrine, church practice, and ministry vision. Believing in the pastor as the stand in for God leads to blind obedience to the leader and complacency in the congregation.

2) The Anointed of God (Charismatic)

The Pentecostal traditions place a great emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit to raise up and call leaders to ministry. Moses, Samuel, David, Jesus: these were all marked and blessed as God’s holy leaders. The outpouring of the Spirit to empower the church through the special anointing of particular people is certainly a theological virtue to be guarded and sought after.

But this theological virtue becomes a practical vice when church leaders assume a Moses-like status of leading the people into the promised land, delivering the law from on high. There becomes a lack of accountability for fear of speaking against “God’s anointed one”, as David feared striking Saul. But we must remember that leaders sometimes need to be rebuked, as Nathan did to David. This leadership vice can again lead to blind obedience and complacency.

Both the “sovereign” and “charismatic” approaches foster a “my way or the high way” approach to leadership, and can promote an “American Idol” worship of the pastor.

3) Priesthood of All (Anabaptist)

On the other end of the spectrum, the Anabaptist traditions emphasize the priesthood of all believers through its non-coercive commitment to communal discernment and mutual submission. This is a theological virtue that understands that Christ is the true and only head of the church, and because all have been given the Spirit all partake in the process of discernment.

But this theological virtue can become a practical vice when individuals abdicate to the loudest voice in the room and avoid conflict in the name of “keeping the peace” (which is a false peace, antithetical to the peace sought by Anabaptists). This can lead to backbiting and bitterness, and a lack of effectiveness or growth in the community.

4) Growing for God’s Glory (Mega-church)

The (evangelical) tradition of church growth and the trend of mega-churches (now multi-site churches) places great value on the impact of the gospel on people’s lives, leading to a church growing numerically. The theological virtue is that God’s witness in and through the church is assumed to be powerful and effective, leading to people being saved, therefore resulting in a church growing in size. The assumption is that what is good for the church in Acts is good for us now.

This theological virtue becomes a practical vice when the demands for continual growth results in bare pragmatism at the expense of truth, and when corporate expansion comes at the expense of personal wholeness. Many people have burned out as ministry leaders because of the pace of perpetuating different programs for the church. Also, personal growth and maturity can shrink down to being ones commitment and creativity in inviting individuals to an event. (Perhaps we can also add the “too big to fail” mentality that begins to direct church practice).

5) Going into the World (Missional)

The missional movement (of various stripes, and we could probably place “progressives” here for this conversation), value a holistic approach to the person which often sees leadership as needing to be exercised outside of the usual bonds of “church” through coffee shops, community centers, and other neighborhood services. The leadership styles found here can come from any of the previous four traditions but turned outward.

The theological virtue of seeking the good of the whole person, and even of the entire community, can turn into a practical vice when “witnessing” is reduced to the “good” of the community without the urgency of conversion. The missional movement can often hope for transformation in the world without calling for concrete conversion from sin. The missional movement, along with many mainline traditions, can focus so much on institutional issues that it loses the equal emphasis on personal conversion and holiness.

Holding on to what is good

Certainly more (or less) could be said of the above observations. My goal is not to villainize any one tradition, but speak truthfully of the virtues and potential vices in each. Can we hold on to what is good in each, and learn from one another?

What do you see? What about Catholics, and Anglicans, and Holiness traditions? Is there a unique virtue that can become a vice for them?

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